Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
India, 2021. Black Ticket Films. Cinematography by Sushmit Ghosh, Karan Thapliyal. Produced by Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas. Music by Ishaan Chhabra, Tajdar Junaid. Film Editing by Anne Fabini, Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas.
Fourteen years into the existence of the Khabar Lahariya news service, directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas take their cameras to learn about the most subversive and exciting informational source in India and, possibly, the world. In a society still defined by a rigid caste system that would normally never see anyone but a man from a higher rank become a professional journalist, the reporters at this outlet are all women of the “untouchable” Dalit Caste, and when we catch up with them at the beginning of this inspiring documentary, they are looking to move their work beyond their print newspaper and into the world of digital outreach.
Chief reporter Meera Devi supplies her staff with iPhones and leads training sessions on how to use them, sending a group of energetic women out into the field to not only capture news stories with their cameras but to investigate the social issues that cause them. Rape victims, infrastructure woes in economically oppressed villages and organized crime corruption are faced head-on as these dedicated journalists ask uncompromising questions of responsible parties, always maintaining a veneer of pleasantry when met with opposition and always good-naturedly dismissive, at least on the surface, when being mansplained by their self-important male peers. Their forbearance is rewarded by the increasing number of hits on the videos they post that strengthen their publication’s reputation as legitimate.
The events of the film find a climax in two federal elections, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s success accompanies a troubling rise in Hindu nationalism that our heroines are fearless about capturing on camera. Their Youtube subscriptions soar and the effects of their reporting are seen in the changes that follow swiftly after their videos are posted, but in a country considered the most dangerous for their profession, their safety is always a concern and the complications of their home lives don’t help much either.
Maintaining traditional duties as wives and mothers isn’t free of complication, Meera’s husband is ambivalent about her career, and she is subtle in expressing her regrets about not spending more time with her children. Shyamkali Devi, who starts out having never touched a smartphone, ends up developing into a powerful storyteller who masters the art of figuring out a story’s angle, while rising star Suneeta Prajapati brings a great deal of courage and charisma to her work before being sidetracked later on by her own desire to start a family. In one of the film’s best sequences, while covering the tragic murder of a village woman, Prajapati collects all the relevant information, both the story and the images, while the men of the official news network are still arguing over details in their van.
“I used to be afraid of everything,” one woman says, stating that now, in this career, she has seen so much more than just her home in her village and finds she has conquered a great deal of her fear. The experience of watching this magnificent feat of underdog success is good for the heart, and while the film openly celebrates the success of its participants, it never patronizes them as adorable symbols.
Academy Award Nomination: Best Documentary Feature